Robert Hard
Robert Hard

UTSA Spotlight: National Science Foundation interviews UTSA Professor Robert Hard

By James Benavides
Public Affairs Specialist

(Aug. 13, 2008)--The 2008 summer movie season saw the return of iconic archaeologist Indiana Jones to the cinema. The Indiana Jones adventures have shone a spotlight on the field of archaeology, but as entertaining and fascinating as Hollywood might portray the profession, there are great differences in archaeology on the screen and in the real world.

To respond to the cinema glitz, National Science Foundation media officer Peter West tapped Robert Hard, UTSA associate professor of anthropology and a practicing archaeologist, for an interview as part of a special report, "Archaeology: Reel to Real."

Hard shows clips from the Indiana Jones movies in his classes to help illustrate academic teachings and will stop the film to ask his students, "What is wrong in this scene?"

Today, scientific archaeology is concerned with answering research questions in a systematic way. Excavations require research designs, appropriate methods, various permits and agreements with government agencies and other organizations.

According to Hard, Hollywood often has a tendency to overlook scientific, legal and ethical issues involved in studying past cultures and recovering artifacts.

"You never see Indiana Jones filling out paperwork," said Hard. "And digs aren't about finding one artifact like the Holy Grail. In real research work, archeologists collect and analyze hundreds of artifacts, but artifacts are only pieces of the puzzle that give us an idea of the larger picture -- the cultures that used these artifacts in everyday life."

A series of NSF grants, totaling more than $300,000, funded Hard and colleague John Roney's anthropological expedition in the Mexican state of Chihuahua for an archaeological study of a 3,000-year-old hilltop settlement at Cerro Juanaqueña in the Rio Casas Grandes Valley. Between 1997 and 2000, the 15-member research team of graduate students and scientists from UTSA and other institutions examined artifacts and remains of plants and animals to understand the activities of Native Americans who lived on top of this 400-foot hill.

The team discovered 1,400 "metates" and "manos" -- grinding stones -- at the site, indicating at least 100 people lived on the hill and processed seeds and corn into flour. Carbon dating placed the corn between 1300 and 1100 B.C., dates that make the site one of the earliest large farming settlements in the American Southwest or Northern Mexico.

With other settlements visible in the distance, man-made terrace features and the presence of nearly 500 stone spear tips, Hard and Roney also argue that the site was a fortified position that protected the fertile river valley below, making it one of the earliest fortified settlements in the Southwest and Northern Mexico. But the hilltop dig yielded only 10 human bone fragments. The lack of human casualties at a fortified site raises the question: What happened to the people who lived at Cerro JuanaqueƱa?

"When people abandon a location, there is an absence of artifacts, making this a difficult question to answer without written records," said Hard. "It's similar to viewing a historic ghost town. The physical remains may tell how the people lived, but may not point to what happened to them. These are the sorts of challenges that archaeologists relish."

In the years since the excavations were completed, Hard and Roney have been analyzing artifacts and writing up the results. They have published more than a dozen articles and book chapters, have given several dozen lectures and are finishing a book on the project. The work also has led to important new collaborations with a research consortium.

Hard is developing a new project further south in Chihuahua. His interview will be posted soon on the National Science Foundation Web site.

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